The shows portray strong, beautiful, intelligent female characters living on their own terms, making lots of money and saving lives.
The popularity of those shows may be linked to the significant increase of women in the medical field—roughly half of all medical students are female, said Jenni Buckley, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware. Buckley, also co-founder of the Perry Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to drawing more females into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), closely studies the numbers of how and when women enter STEM-related fields.
“It’s seen as a prestigious profession; you know it’s going to be lucrative,” Buckley said of the medical field. “All of that from watching TV as a middle schooler.”
The Engineering Black Hole
However, engineering fields lag far behind the life sciences in attracting women, Buckley said. At the undergraduate level, about 11 percent of engineering students are women. At the graduate level, it’s about 8-11 percent. Numbers rose from 1-3 percent in the 1950s and 1960s to the current rate in the 1990s, but have remained steady at the current rate despite initiatives to draw in more women.
“Those numbers are not good,” she said. “They’ve kind of figured out the issue with women in engineering tends to occur pretty early. They’re turned off in middle school.”
Part of the disconnect may be related to the stereotypes of engineers perpetuated in the media, Buckley said.
“In engineering, you don’t have those pop culture role models,” Buckley said. “Probably the closest we come would be [the television show] ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ While it’s funny, it’s probably not the stereotype we want to perpetuate. We definitely need a rebranding.”
Victoria Trafka, president and lead consultant for Engineering & Quality Solutions Inc. in Colorado Springs, Colo., remembers how those numbers in school translated to real life.
“I look back and I’ve frequently been the only girl in classes, at meetings, in conferences—the only girl in the room most of the time,” she said. “When I was in school, the numbers in the mid-1990s were 10 percent in undergraduate and 10 in industry. I only had one female engineering professor in undergraduate.”
Trafka, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, recalls being dismissed or ignored by certain faculty and clients during the early stages of her schooling and career, including people who insisted they wanted to talk to “a real engineer.” But she says peer acceptance has improved dramatically over the past two decades.
“Once you moved from the education field to professional realm, there was, in the ‘90s, way less peer acceptance,” she said. “It has greatly improved in 20 years.”
Creating a Pipeline to Fill the Hole
Another misconception Buckley would like to correct is that to be an engineer, you have to be brilliant with numbers.
“You need to be proficient in math and science, but you can go into engineering because you’re extremely creative,” Buckley said. “We’re trying to say to young audiences, engineers are problem-solvers, and they’re working on these really important issues that we’re working on as a society. You can save lives, you can have an impact on a lot of people in healthcare as an engineer.”
Young audiences are the focus of the Perry Initiative, which reaches about 3,500 girls per year with a six-hour immersion in orthopedics and engineering. High school girls are selected for the program based on their essay, not their grade point average. They spend the day with sawbones models and tools, puzzling out how to put broken bodies back together. Buckley says the girls describe the day as life-changing, and follow-up statistics suggest as much. Of 2,700 alumni, 98 percent are at a four-year college, 84 percent are in STEM and 21 percent are studying engineering.
“If you take kids who are STEM-inclined, only about 5 percent follow through without exposure like Perry Initiative intensives,” Buckley said. “We’re about four times the national average.”
At the University of Delaware, one of the top 40 engineering schools in the United States, about 21 percent of engineering students are female, Buckley said, which is about twice the rate of her local community.
“If we can get women in the door, we’re going to graduate them,” she said. “The issue tends to be the pipeline. My interest right now is, how can we get the broader K-12 education community comfortable with engineering and saying the right things to kids: you’re creative, you’ve got perseverance and grit—you’d make an excellent engineer.”
Solidifying the Support Structure
Trafka credits the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) with providing a support network while she was in school and throughout her career that’s enabled her to grow as a professional in an industry that’s still overwhelmingly male dominated.
“SWE offers networking, support and programs for women in engineering,” Trafka said. “I think they’re valuable in attracting and keeping women in engineering and helping women deal with work situations. They want to support women as a whole, which is critical for a long-term career.”
Buckley is convinced the pipeline will widen with industry support layered with successful programs like the Perry Initiative and Project Lead the Way, which brings STEM to more than 6,500 schools nationwide.
“This is solvable, but it’s probably better if we consolidate efforts and go with groups that are doing best practices,” she said. “All of us have to think like engineers about this problem.”
From the Moon to Medtech
When I was in middle school, I dreamed of being an astronaut. I chose my classes and honed my skills to eventually explore outer space, but the universe had other plans. Through a series of unexpected rejections and opportunities, I ended up studying biomedical engineering.
When I attended college and graduate school in the 1990s, I was very fortunate to develop connections to a series of professors and professionals who mentored me. These were men and women who didn’t care about my gender. They were dedicated to helping me make the most of my mind. So, for me, it didn’t matter that I was the only woman in class or in my co-op—I was used to that. What mattered was I had people who could help me work through challenges—personal, academic or professional—and grow as a person. Each of those experiences set me on the path that led me to develop a family of companies that helps medical device innovators get their products to market.
I don’t have hard numbers, but I know I’m now dealing with more women in a professional setting. The Empirical family of companies works mostly with small businesses; more of those now are led by women. I’m fortunate to be involved with organizations such as the Perry Initiative. That’s where I can connect with those young girls who may recognize Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory.” But those girls have no idea there are real-life characters like Buckley and Trafka ready to lead them to a challenging, fulfilling career they’ve never considered simply because they’ve never been exposed to it. That exposure is key. A pop culture rebrand of the industry would definitely extend the reach of our field, but direct experience also is critical. Whether that’s a day cutting sawbones in a Perry Initiative program or an hour at a SWE luncheon honoring local students, life-changing moments often come when we’re least expecting them.
So I’ll continue to support the Perry Initiative, to speak in schools and tell young women how I went from a star-struck teenage aerospace reject to the captain of my own ship. I’ll encourage them to speak up for themselves, ask questions and forge relationships with people who’ll help them become the women they’re destined to be, even if they don’t quite know what that is.
What will you do? Time, money, talent—each of us has something to offer to help build the pipeline of women to help bridge that gender gap and bring bright young minds into our industry. For more information on the Perry Initiative, visit www.perryinitiative.org. To learn more about the Society of Women Engineers, visit www.swe.org. For more about Project Lead the Way, go to www.pltw.org.
Dawn A. Lissy is president of the Empirical family of companies (Empirical Testing, Empirical Machine and Empirical Consulting). Lissy is a biomedical engineer, an entrepreneur and an innovator. For more than 20 years, she’s worked with clients to bring groundbreaking medical devices to market. She was recently selected for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Entrepreneurs in Residence program, which invited top professionals from the medical device industry to work with the FDA to streamline and improve the device approval process. She is a member of the Biomedical Engineering Society, Society of Women Engineers, the American Society of Biomechanics and the American Society for Testing and Materials. She holds an M.S. in biomedical engineering from The University of Akron, Ohio.